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How Will I Know You’re Not Dead?

Raymond Abbott

I never thought it would go on for so long–seeing Donald Wyatt, I mean. I certainly didn’t plan it this way.

More than six years ago, I retired at age sixty-six from my social-work job at a mental-health agency. Donald had been my client there for about eight years.

As I was cleaning out my office, his mother called. She explained how Donald’s father had left when Donald was not much more than an infant, which had made him sensitive to abandonment, especially by male figures. Could I, she wondered, meet Donald once in awhile for coffee or lunch?

“Yes,” I said, “I can do that.”

So every month Donald and I meet for lunch at Panera Bread. I initially figured that it would go on for a few months at most. I should have known better.

A slight, clean-shaven man with curly brown hair, Donald is forty-five but looks older. He’s been diagnosed with Asperger’s (an autism-spectrum disorder marked by difficulties in social interaction) and Tourette’s (a neurological disorder featuring physical and vocal tics). He also suffers from depression.

I suppose that what most people notice first about Donald is his practice of repeating things; it drives some people crazy. If he says something once, he’ll say it four or five times. And if the conversation involves something that he deems especially important, such as the date and time of our lunch appointment, he might well repeat it six or eight times.

A couple of days before our lunch date, he calls to confirm, and if I’m not home, he leaves a message–repeating it several times, each slower than the last. It’s clear that he doesn’t want to risk the slightest chance of a misunderstanding. If I happen to be out of town on those days, I may return to find twenty or more messages waiting. Sometimes the poor machine is overwhelmed and shuts down entirely.

One time I came home to all of those waiting messages. I was feeling a bit out of sorts, so I gently admonished Donald for calling so often.

He apologized repeatedly and asked if I was angry. Then he said, “How will I know, Ray, that you’re not dead?”

I’ve never mentioned the calls since.

If I plan to be away before a lunch date, I try to head off any potential panic by calling Donald to let him know.

“But I will certainly be there for our appointment,” I assure him. “I have a good memory–I won’t forget–so you need not keep calling.” Sometimes this helps.

One time, when I was out of town, I did forget. Fortunately, I had Donald’s number in my wallet, so I called to cancel.

I’m not sure what would happen if he went to Panera Bread and I didn’t show up; I suspect that he’d be beside himself. He knows my address, and he’d probably go there looking for me, even though I’ve made it clear that home visits are inappropriate. He’s never come to my home–but then, I’ve never missed a lunch date without notice, either.

Another time, on the eve of a lunch, I developed severe abdominal pain that turned out to be appendicitis. Only the next day, while driving myself to the hospital for the surgery, did I remember our lunch date. I called Donald from the hospital as I awaited surgery. It’s kind of curious the lengths to which I’ll go not to disappoint him.

So, month after month, we rendezvous at Panera Bread on Thursday at 2:00 pm–except that he’s always there early.

When we meet, the first thing Donald does is to hand me a paper with the time and place of our next lunch date.

“How are you, Donald?” I ask.

His answer is always the same: “I’m happy.”

And when he orders his meal, I notice the clerk looking at him as if wondering, What’s with you and all this repeating? But I stand with Donald and make it clear that we’re together, to keep the clerk from being abrupt with him; his feelings are easily hurt. (I hasten to add that the clerks at Panera have never been rude to Donald. I can’t say that about some other places we’ve frequented.)

So the woman (it’s usually a woman) takes the needed time with Donald as he repeats his order several times, each time more slowly. I just smile a knowing smile; I’ve been through this so often.

When I was Donald’s social worker, I sometimes took him to do his shopping at places like Walmart or Target. One day, I remember, the checkout line was long, and there were a couple of young girls in front of us. One of the girls happened to turn and catch Donald’s eye.

“How are you, sir?” she said politely.

“I’m happy!” Donald answered in a loud voice.

I thought the poor kid would melt in embarrassment. She didn’t look back a second time.

Once we’ve ordered, Donald pays for his lunch, and I pay for mine. At Christmas time, which is also when his birthday takes place, I pay for his meal, as a combined holiday-birthday gift. (I have had to caution him not to load up on extra sides and desserts just because I’m paying. He complies, but only because I’ve told him that ordering more would not be appropriate. If I hadn’t spoken up, he’d be capable of doubling down at my expense. But he did this only one time.)

After getting our food, we sit down, and Donald wolfs down his sandwich, cookie and iced tea. We exchange a few words. He answers my questions, such as, “How are your mother and dad?” (He has a stepfather.) But before I can eat two bites of my sandwich, he’s up on his feet and ready to leave.

I don’t say what I’m thinking: Why not stay a bit longer, Donald? When I’ve said this in the past, he has stayed, but looked uncomfortable. So it’s all right with me that he leaves quickly.

Now I just say, “See you next month,” and he heads off contentedly while I finish my sandwich.

It seems to me that, for Donald, planning and anticipating these encounters must be more important than the actual event. Come to think of it, maybe that’s also true for me. Anticipating something can be half the fun, maybe more than half; I’m not sure why.

One luncheon coincided with my birthday, so I rescheduled, as I was going out of town. When I got home, my machine had a message from Donald. He sang “Happy Birthday,” then said, “You’re seventy-two!” (Not that I needed reminding.) My birthday is, as I write these lines, a few days away. If I’m not at home when Donald calls, I am fully confident that I will find a birthday message in song awaiting me that day. And of course he will remind me, again, how old I’ve become.

This highlights another of Donald’s key traits: he remembers numbers extremely well. He can tell you not just my birthday but those of my daughter and son-in-law, plus when my daughter graduated from college and got married, and my grandson Owen’s name and birthday–all of which I have mentioned to Donald only once.

For a long time, when my mother was still living, Donald delighted in reminding me of her upcoming birthdays and marveling at how long she’d been alive.

She died in 2012, a week shy of her ninety-ninth birthday.

Donald doesn’t speak of her anymore now that she’s gone. He must have figured out, somehow, that it wouldn’t be appropriate.

About the author:

This is one of a collection of twenty-five stories entitled The Unique Boarding Home by Raymond Abbott, a licensed social worker in Kentucky whose works have appeared in Pulse, Hospital Drive and elsewhere. “I have been writing for many years on just about every subject.”

Story editor:

Diane Guernsey



11 thoughts on “How Will I Know You’re Not Dead?”

  1. You are a good and kind person. It is a delight to read about people doing the right thing because everyone matters. The black bean soup at Panara’s is great too!

  2. margaret tryforos

    Touching story. I hope Donald receives as much kindness from his new “official” social worker. And know that Raymond benefits from the relationship as much as Donald.
    (and that Donald is lucky to have a mother who understands his needs and advocates for him- the unsung hero of this story!)

  3. Dr Janelle Trees

    A delightful portrait of life in the repetitive lane — with all its pleasures and restriction lightly borne. Thank you.

  4. While I am NOT a mental health professional, for a while (not under the same circumstances as Donald, however) I was the individual receiving the services .. and .. even with a minor amount of understanding and caring it would have meant the entire WORLD to me to have that individual be willing to take the time to recognize me as a human being .. even an extremely lonely one. Too often in today’s society, a LOT of people in the world .. especially if they seem the LEAST little bit different are not met with compassion and care but instead criticism and look upon the person as an “odd duck” .. which makes the people .. like Donald .. or myself .. feel all the worse. I’m now almost completely out of receiving any mental health services; however, I’m also VERY isolated because evidently along the way in my life people are STILL judging me as that “odd duck” from years ago .. and there are NO people with compassion willing to be my “Raymond” .. sad case for me ..

  5. what a sweet and touching story. i wll have my students read it in a narrative medicine course so we can discuss.
    thanks for sharing it

  6. Linda Fitzgerald

    I work in an agency that serves people with disabilities and really appreciate when someone takes the time and energy to form relationships with them and help them live like everyone else lives. Thank you Mr. Abbott.

  7. you have a somewhat baleful bird upon your shoulder. It is a bit uncomfortable, but you are accustomed to it now, and it has become part of you. Will the bird be transferred? Who will willingly take this bird, its loyalty, and its burden?

  8. Clearly you’re not an ordinary retired social worker and your actions are admirable!. In the piece, you leave it to the reader to infer your feelings about all this. Anticipation may be good, but it’s not enough to keep this going for 6 yrs! I know how strong the urge is not to let someone (or something) down when they’re innocently dependent on you, and maybe that is what compels you. If I had to guess, I’d say your feelings are mixed,.but it might make for interesting reading in a future piece, to go a little deeper.

  9. Margaret Peterson

    During a recent conversation with a social worker who was my therapist 25 years ago, with whom I have a Ray-and-Donald kind of ongoing relationship, I confided my fear that one day he will die, and no one will tell me. His response: “If I receive a life-threatening diagnosis, I will call you. And I will add your name and contact information to the letter of instruction I keep with my will, so that if I die unexpectedly, my executor will notify you.” Who knows what arrangement (if any) Ray will make with Donald. But I completely identify with Donald’s attachment to Ray, and with his touching question, “How will I know you’re not dead?”

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